Review of You Can’t Stay Here by Jasmina Odor (Thistledown 2017)

The characters in Jasmina Odor’s first story collection You Can’t Stay are mostly immigrants to Canada whose damage or displacement by the Balkan war is manifest in their difficulty knowing how to love. In this respect it’s a most contemporary collection but by not a typically Canadian one. First, the focus is on personal relationships, but the guiding spirit is Mavis Gallant, not Alice Munro, because the terrible, iron force of history is in operation in these lives to a degree rare in Canadian fiction. Second, the emotional and historical intelligence at work here is in a league of its own. Usually the absence of such intelligence in our fiction goes unmentioned, because other things are easier to talk about. What is there to say if it’s missing? What Canadian review will ever conclude, These are well-crafted stories written with sincerity and feeling, but (unlike Munro) the author isn’t bright enough to have made them especially interesting or insightful. So the reviewer focuses on identity issues or on elements that worked for her or didn’t and lets her lack of enthusiasm say the rest.

This won’t be happening here. You Can’t Stay Here is one of the best story collections, Canadian or otherwise, that I have read in years. In the first story, “Board of Perfect Pine,” a young woman arrives already drunk at a party at the suburban home of her boyfriends’ parents:

I move through the crowd, into the smell of musky, sweet perfume, the carefully arranged women. But though their hair is streaked and stiff and their fingernails painted, their laughter is loud and unbuttoned, their arms playful.

And there it is, the adult restraints and freedoms that she will not be sober enough to navigate. In “Bless the Day” a young woman whose husband and daughter are now living with another woman is walking a neighbourhood trying to identify the house in the basement of which she lived with him when they first moved in together. She comes upon two homeless people sitting on a lawn. They bum a smoke.

“I’m very tired,” I said. They did not say anything. I looked down at the ground, and then sat down next to the woman, a foot away from her, on green grass.

“Tired, eh,” she said.

You can’t write things like this sitting at home.

In the title story, Ivona and Sven have emigrated from Croatia to Canada and finally saved enough to buy a visa for his parents, who sleep in their bedroom while she, Sven, and their young son Mario sleep on a mattress in the living room. A day after arriving, her mother-in-law says, “I thought you would have done better for yourselves.” This, in addition to her father-in-law’s impatience with Mario’s failure, or inability, to show affection, results in Ivona’s saying to them the words of the title of this story and of the collection: You can’t stay here. “You are such a hard woman,” Sven tells her. When he admits he might never forgive her, she takes back “her forgiveness for everything she had ever held against him.” Later she comes upon him trying to teach Mario to draw.

Mario is puncturing the paper with the crayon, and Sven keeps saying, “Easy, son.” She sits down beside her husband. He is a dark-haired man, with a wide face, and his skin is milky-pale, inherited by their son. There is a spot of black grease near Sven’s temple, and stray eyelash nestled near the bridge of his nose. Ivona, before she kisses them both, and touches both of their faces, can see all this clearly.

Another story that took my breath away or, more accurately, caused me to mutter holy fuck and mentally stagger back, is called “The Lesser Animal.” It concerns Toma, a Croatian living in Edmonton, who has “taken on” the “Canadian habit” of drinking whisky with ginger ale at his kitchen table. Though he has lived in Canada for ten years and for five with a Canadian woman and her daughter, he remains haunted by the war.

He had not been like the others, not nearly as bad as the other side, in wanton shooting, in locking people in attics to torment and debase them. Still, he had been there; he had been high on battle and victory, on testosterone and other hormones. On history. He had been there and had done ugly things, even if he was among the better of them and not in charge.

Toma’s primary concern is his niece Ana, his responsibility when he came to Canada, now with a jealous husband and a small son she worries about, working small jobs, smoking too much dope.  Toma’s sense of powerlessness to save Ana from herself and from the madness of her husband is confused in his mind with the time he left a friend and three other drunken soldiers in a room with two teenage girls. “They looked like sisters, they wore old tracksuits and had long greasy hair and frightened eyes.” Toma puts a forefinger to his friend’s forehead. “‘You watch, all right? I’ll be coming back here.’ He walked away, leaving the door open. Then he heard someone kick it shut.” It’s the end of this story that will take your breath away: the power of the narrative shift. The clean, strong, compassionate connection to now.

Jasmina Odor’s stories are rich with incident, unspooling more abundantly as they proceed, concerning lives that are this close to flipping out of control. Characters behave with an irrational unpredictability that feels authentic. Their worlds are filled with risk and refusal. Boundaries are blurred. But the craziness doesn’t well up out of nowhere. Larger narratives of social and historical reality are being brought to bear, a larger understanding of what it is the characters are dealing with, or seeking refuge from. The world is a hard place for a mind that has been stripped of the illusion that it can protect the body. Here is a sentence from the final story.

He supposed that pain could be handled when it was known to be finite and in the confines of safety and certain not to lead to death or other damage.

The title of this story, “The Time of the Apricots,” is from the Arabic saying, “tomorrow you’re in the apricots,” which can mean either good fortune or “when pigs fly.” These are stories for these times.

Greg Hollingshead

Unpublished, 2017